Diving Into North Florida’s Water Story

An Introduction to Project: Blue Ether

By Cynthia Barnett

North Central Florida has always been known for its freshwater riches: Rivers winding down the rural landscape. Lakes spotted from the airplane window. Creeks that criss-cross Gainesville. A record number of freshwater springs. Finally, the Floridan Aquifer – the underground source connecting all of that to all of us. Whether for faucets, farms, or fish, the water quenching us comes from the same, fragile reserve underfoot.

But, between human pressures and a changing climate, our water fortunes are changing, too. At the University of Florida’s Water Institute Symposium this spring, Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, revealed satellite data for North Florida that show a gradual decline in freshwater here even as rainfall dips and peaks.

NASA’s GRACE satellite mission that detects water storage around the world means that for the first time, citizens can really see what’s happening to aquifers like the Floridan, the source that must fill our hoses and irrigation systems before it can replenish the springs.

From Florida to California, Famiglietti says, the urgent problem is the disassociation between how we use water aboveground and what’s happening to aquifers below.

“As a community,” he says, “we need to elevate critical water issues to the level of everyday understanding.”

That’s the goal of Project: Blue Ether, launching today from the UF College of Journalism and Communications with support from the Online News Association. Project: Blue Ether seeks to create a new model for news that makes citizens part of the story – and part of the solutions. Beginning today and each Wednesday through spring, we’ll publish new stories of water produced by our students. Today, Matt Bruce opens the series by following North Florida’s water from a rainstorm building over Paynes Prairie, down storm drains and sinkholes, across lawns and livestock pens, to explain our intricate relationship with water. And Shelby Krantz reports on what new tree-ring research foresees about our region’s vulnerability to future droughts that could be much more severe than those we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

Why does a tiny tree ring from 500 years ago matter to people in North Florida? “Science doesn’t tell us what to do or what not to do. But it can tell us – in advance – the likely consequences of our actions,” says Tom Frazer, acting director of UF’s Water Institute. “That’s incredibly valuable information, but only when it’s understood outside the lab – when it’s broadly understood by citizens.”

The news articles are only the beginning. Project: Blue Ether blends this in-depth reporting with gaming and public-interest communications – an academic discipline devoted to communicating for the public good – to further engage citizens in water’s story, science and solutions.

The name comes from the 18th Century naturalist William Bartram, who described North Florida’s springs as perfectly transparent and impossibly blue, bubbling up “from the blue ether of another world.” Today, pollution and groundwater pumping from thirsty population centers and farms have some of the springs looking more like algae soup. Project: Blue Ether aims to push beyond description, to involvement and change.

Our public-interest campaign helps people understand their personal role – how everything from our backyard hoses to our food choices have a direct connection to the aquifer and springs. Our alternate-reality game is a catalyst for getting involved: Participants can hunt for clues hidden in the stories themselves, or physical points of interest like a sinkhole or a spring. With interactive maps developed by our partner UF’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities, people can also drill much deeper into the data in our stories – finding their own water use at home, or even comparing themselves with neighbors.

We hope that Project: Blue Ether helps inspire not only a new ethic for water, but new models for journalism and communications that elevate conversation and community involvement. If you’d like to join our email list-serv to keep up with the stories, game and campaign, please click here. We invite you to dive into North Florida’s water story head first – heart close behind.

– Cynthia Barnett, environmental journalism, Ann Christiano, public interest communications and Yu Hao Lee, telecommunications

“As a community, we need to elevate critical water issues to the level of everyday understanding.”Jay Famiglietti, NASA senior water scientist